The LBGTQ+ Pride Celebration is now the Super Bowl of cause marketing. What began as an uprising against marginalization at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, has morphed into a corporate affair. Every June, brands across verticals shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars per festival to secure coveted sponsorship placements. Plus, from hamburgers to app interfaces, virtually everyone has come out with a flagship rainbow product in a scramble to get in on the action.
On the one hand, this corporate engagement—along with the fact that queer people now lead Fortune 500 companies, tell us our news, and hold seats in Congress—might show us how far we’ve come as a society. Certain LGBTQ+ communities have become welcomed into mainstream society. They are no longer societal outcasts but a valued, and valuable, demographic.On the other, with articles like, “Is It Possible to Escape the Commercialization of Pride,?” “How LGBTQ Pride Month Became a Branded Holiday and Why That’s a Problem,” and “Dear Corporate America, Leave Our LGBTQ Pride Celebrations Alone,”[ circulating the press, Pride’s mainstream success has clearly come with growing pains.
Looking at these articles more closely, grievances largely stem from a) brands profiting off of pride without doing anything substantial (or even doing what’s detrimental after the month of June ends); b) stealing valuable queer space; and c) marginalizing certain communities within larger LGBTQ+ communities to popularize an image of queerness that’s palatable to mainstream American consumer culture. As an ad agency, we influence how brands interact with the world at large, and we want to do a better job when it comes to Pride. Here are some imperatives for brands that want to Pride responsibly:
Create a Platform for LGBTQ+ Storytelling
As the Stonewall Riots show, Pride was founded as a rallying ground to raise queer voices. Ironically, with an overabundance of branded spectacle, it has become yet another space where voices go unheard. Surprisingly, brands can help combat this. For example, publisher Penguin Books hosts Penguin Pride at festivals across the United Kingdom, where established LGBTQ+ authors as well as up-and-coming queer literary talent can share their work. The logical connection between a publisher and public readings makes this effort authentic. However, brands across many verticals can give a voice to queer communities: A B2B brand could promote an LGBTQ+ client or launch a networking space for queer professionals. Since the LGBTQ+ community is a part of every community, the sky’s the limit on brands helping people tell their stories.
Pride was founded to provide a space for queer people of all backgrounds to assert themselves. Unfortunately, as Pride’s become commercialized, many of the communities that helped get the event off the ground have been pushed out. Recent New York Times and Washington Post articles illustrate how corporate Pride culture only promotes “upper-middle class, able-bodied, white, American gay cis men, [leaving] everyone else marginalized or silenced.” Brands that want to engage in Pride need to respect the intersecting identities that have always been present in LGBTQ+ communities.
Donate in an Impactful Way
Corporate donations are great, but this point, they’ve become table stakes. To really make an impact, brands need to sustain their giving in a way that makes sense for who they are as a brand. For example, Seattle-based barber and hair-care company Rudy’s donates its 1-2-3 hair and body products to shelters serving LGBTQ+ youth. With over 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identifying as LGBTQ+, this effort goes above and beyond the typical “10% of all proceeds will go to <insert charity>.” It taps into its product base to connect queer youth with high quality bath products that we all need to feel our best.
Support the Employees who Support your Company
Pride presents an opportunity to reflect on how your brand interacts with LGBTQ+ communities at large. However, it also presents an opportunity to reflect on how it treats the queer individuals that arguably interact with your brand the most: the employees that keep your business afloat. Pride can be a time to launch long term workplace initiatives that create an impact beyond the month of June. Pride flags and recognition are a great start on the road to helping LGBTQ employees feel comfortable at work, but they need to be followed by real policies—from basic environmental considerations, like gender neutral bathrooms, to more specific action plans, like how to best support employees transitioning at work. As the first Fortune 500 company to offer same-sex domestic partnership benefits (in 1993), Microsoft, a longstanding client of ours, goes above and beyond in creating LGBTQ friendly workplaces. For more than 20 years, it has worked to assess the needs of its queer employees through dedicated employee resource groups. In recent years, this dialogue’s grown so much that Microsoft has even held international summits—attended by non-profits and experts in the diversity and inclusion world—to explore what organizations at large are doing to foster inclusive LGBTQ+ workplace environments.
Companies’ places during Pride Month is tricky, but not impossible. Instead of giving up and looking away, we can take the successes above as inspiration and start questioning what we can do to move forward.